Time and Chronology in Creation Narratives

Conference 7th-9th June 2018

Nick Allen

Rotation and Temporality in Some Indo-European Mythologies

Nature provides temporal cycles (diurnal, lunar, seasonal, annual), which culture elaborates, mythologises, and ritualises, implicitly following the geometry of the circle (with its one-dimensional centre and two-dimensional diameter). In Dumézil’s trifunctionalism circular patterns tend to be treated as secondary elaborations of a triadic linear hierarchy; but the latter is arguably a curtailed/compressed form of a pentadic pattern consisting of totality plus four subordinate entities. One such pentadic pattern is the synchronic spatial schema of centre and cardinal points, which gains a temporal aspect when applied to journeys, e.g. the clockwise journeys so prominent in the Mahābhārata; moreover, spatial and temporal units are easily homologised (as in the Brāhmaṇas). But sometimes circular movement concerns less what moves than the central axis. Thus, near the start of the Mahābhārata, in the more or less cosmogonic Churning of the Ocean, gods and demons rotate a sacred mountain ‒ compare the wooden drill used to kindle ritual fire. Again, in Plato’s Republic book 10 (as analysed by Marcello De Martino 2015), the spindle of Necessity and the shaft of light above it constitute an axis mundi around which planets and luminaries revolve at different speeds, helped by the three fates that govern human life cycles. Comparable contexts include the Setting in motion of the Wheel of Dharma (with its four noble truths), which opens the salvific part of the Buddha’s biography; the ‘churning’ involved in the birth of the primal king Pr̥thu; the Wheel of Life (bhavacakra), which depicts the five or six worlds through which souls transmigrate in the course of samsāra; and the whirlpool of Charybdis that marks the start of Odysseus’ recovery after the disasters earlier in his nostos. Rotational schemas probably featured prominently in early Indo-European ideas of time and beginnings.

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